(A/N: This is dark stuff. Consider yourself warned.)
You awaken to your arm pounding in agony, somewhere cold and dark, sitting on a chair that digs into your bones with your wrists drawn together by coarse rope. There is sweat on your skin, and bandages wrapped tightly around your bicep. Your vision spins as you fight to concentrate.
Dim lighting, from a single light bulb suspended from the—wooden, moldy, damaged—ceiling.
A musty smell of an unused cellar, empty and narrow.
A figure wrapped in shadow at the edge of the room.
It's a bad spot, but doesn't quite beat being suspended above ground by the fraying thread of an abandoned crane. So you systematically comb through your memories, fighting to reestablish some semblance of reality.
Russian Roulette. Taking the bullet for Kang Do-young.
Orphanages, Liar Game, wells, Walden Two.
Before you can move further, the figure stands. You hear the single clack of a three-inch heel and catch the faint scent of—
what does this mean
—then the figure steps into the light.
It's Nam Da-jung, doe-eyed and smiling gleefully, not calling to you in terror, not asking desperately where you are, not checking your condition—
"Good morning, Ha Woo-jin," she chirps. "Did you have a good night's rest?"
You stare unblinkingly at her, the rest of your brain in a terrible uproar of cognitive dissonance. Clearly you are missing something.
"Are you"—your tongue is dry, you swallow and try again—"are you okay, Da-jung?"
Her response is immediate. "Never been better. Thanks for asking." She tilts her head, slightly, almost like those times where she was thinking hard about something, and yet not quite. "Pity it's not the same for you. Bad piece of luck, having the bullet in your arm. That was meant for Do-young, but you just had to switch things up, didn't you?"
The words are so cruel, so alien, that you realize. Ah, you think. Another trick by Do-young. A bit ungrateful, considering that I just saved his life... but really, what was I expecti—
"Oh, heavens, cut out that puny line of thinking," Da-jung says disgustedly. "Do-young, behind all this? The boy's clever, I'll give him that, but—didn't you realize that there was a bigger player behind him?"
And eventually, the gravity of the situation begins to dawn on you.
Da-jung must be telling the truth, because Da-jung has always been terrible at lying, terrible at acting, and she couldn't act this way if she wanted to.
Your shock must have changed something on your face, because her smile is widening, and she is raising her hands, and she is clapping rapidly with unsuppressed glee, and the move is simultaneously so very Da-jung and not Da-jung at all—
"Do you get it, now?" she sings. "Do you understand?"
No, your mind screams, there must be something else, some other reason, some background force—
"I," she says, and leans forward, "control the Game."
And everything shuffles into place.
Da-jung approached you and Do-young at the orphanage.
Da-jung liked smart people.
Da-jung had to be a smart person, or she would have played with the other children.
Da-jung has to be smart.
Da-jung has to be smarter than you, to act dumb and have you believe it.
Because Da-jung is, and always has been, smart.
Because just as you are a genius and Kang Do-young is a genius, Nam Da-jung must also be a genius.
But no, your mind screams back, she's pure and innocent and she really did believe in trust, or she wouldn't have acted the way she did—
"What about," you say shakingly, your voice very small. "What about the... the reaction of the first challenge? As the time was counting down, you, you came to your teacher's gates, and you were desperate—"
"I'm not an idiot," she said, rolling her eyes. "I had my phone. I knew perfectly what time it was."
Of course she had.
Only now do you remember: she had been using it. She had refused to show you what she'd been up to.
She had her phone, and while waiting, she certainly would have looked at it—at some point.
Which meant Nam Da-jung could act. Really, really well.
what was true, what was false
You don't know.
Da-jung tilts her head daintily, eyebrows lifted. "You mean, you didn't see this coming? The great, all-seeing Ha Woo-jin—you missed what was under your very nose?"
"Your—father," you manage.
"What, that pawn? He wasn't my father; just a man who bought me from your mother. I turned the tables on him easily enough. He had no choice but to act as I commanded." She sighs contentedly. "Even Kang Do-young, in the end, was so very simple. A few little words, a gentle nudge, and he's convinced that he's landed on a brilliant idea of his own making..."
"...when you were the one who invented it," you whisper.
Her lips pull upward. "Did you really think that my naïveté was genuine? That I wouldn't have realized—the only thing more powerful than money is the human conscience?"
"Then those words to Jaime, during the smuggling challenge..."
"Calculated. She was the most entertaining to watch, but she almost fell back into being boring. Think what would have happened if she had stabbed us in the back. Typical villainess, tired trope, nothing new."
Your tongue stills in your mouth.
but you trusted me
no matter what
I fired at you, you trusted me
you couldn't have known
and that bullet, that real bullet
"Did you really think," she says flatly, as if reading your thoughts, "that I couldn't have distinguished a real bullet from a blank, even when it is clearly different in size, color, and shape?" She giggles, a light, pure sound that claws at your eardrums. "Even if a Nam Da-jung existed, surely she would have noticed that something was different, even if she didn't know it was a real bullet."
Of course she would have.
Why didn't you think of that sooner?
Because—you hadn't wanted to.
In hindsight, in the cold-colored goggles that provide 20/20 vision at a terrible cost, you should have realized.
"No one could be that stupid," you remember thinking, scowling to yourself, coughing in disbelief as this Bambi-eyed slip of a girl unquestioningly places her fortune in the wrinkled, oily hands of a squinty-eyed old man just because of one meager favor years ago that he'd only done because he liked her face—
In hindsight, you should have realized.
You were right.
She leans forward, bracing her hands against your chair.
"You're just beginning to understand, aren't you," she says softly.
The lips that you've captured in your dreams hover closer, and you hate yourself to your bones, because you want them to be cold and thin and scaly, black like the heart of this stranger in Nam Da-jung's body—but they're not, they look warm, soft, flushed red like her cheeks when you once pulled in to fake a kiss—
Had that been fake?
Had it all been fake?
The question rises to your tongue and you choke on its solid, cold presence in your throat. You are logical; you are intelligent; you are not a schoolboy. But she reads your face like a book—you, who can't control your microexpressions, not to the extent you need—and her eyebrows lift just a millimeter.
"Oh, puppy," she croons. "You really thought it was all real. You really thought Nam Da-jung was real."
She leans in closer, lips just a hair away from yours. You feel her breath, warm, misting over your cheeks.
"I warned you, didn't I? Kang Do-young warned you. Whatever people want as the truth—that is the truth." Her eyes are half-lidded, her hands splayed over your chest. "You wanted a Nam Da-jung. Everyone wanted a Nam Da-jung. So a Nam Da-jung they got, and a Nam Da-jung they saw—nothing else. Blinded, because they saw only what they wanted to see."
She straightens back, and you release a breath you hadn't realized you'd been holding—something that rattles out of your chest in a groaning sigh.
"You were so, so busy worrying if Nam Da-jung trusted you—that you forgot to worry about yourself." She smiles quietly. "You were so focused on Nam Da-jung's feelings, Nam Da-jung's thoughts, Nam Da-jung's fate, that you completely neglected that little part of you that whispered that something might be wrong."
If you were honest, you'd really had those moments.
If you were even more honest, you'd purposefully ignored them.
"I can't fault you," she murmurs. "Everyone else fell for it, too. I was good. And—if I'm completely honest, it wasn't frustrating, being treated like an idiot who knew absolutely nothing. I found it fun. Revolutionary." Her eyes sparkle as they lock on yours. "It's that thrill that you get when you're watching a movie with a friend, and you know the ending, but you pretend not to know, and you watch as your friend blunders around and makes an absolute fool of themselves."
That feeling of superiority, of regarding the troubles of ordinary humans as dirt beneath your feet.
That feeling of glee when you're one step ahead on the gameboard, one degree higher than the rabble, one level deeper in prediction.
That feeling that you had relished when Jaime had revealed her true colors, that feeling that you had craved to hold over Kang Do-young, that feeling that you, an ex-con who dealt with other ex-cons, understood more than any other feeling in the world.
But to think that Nam Da-jung would feel something like that—
Then her smile spreads to her eyes, and why does she have to look so innocent, so beautifully pure, WHY. "Didn't you ever consider," she says, every word a glop of poisonous, luxurious honey, "that I'd said the same thing your mother did... because I heard it from her own tongue?"
"Because you were at the orphanage," you muse.
"I never heard it at the orphanage," she says slowly. "I wasn't there for nearly long enough."
Your breath catches.
"Yes. It's what you're thinking." She tilts her head. "When your mother begged for her debts to be relaxed, she said it then, the little darling. I thought it was just too cute to forget."
"No," is the only word you say, brokenly, like a little child.
Nam Da-jung's grin broadens even more—and you hadn't thought it possible. "Then, did you ever consider that the one who drove her to desperation, to madness"—she leans closer, and she is savoring this, every last taste of every vindictive word leaving her tongue—"to suicide"—her breath against your ear, her alluring perfume in your nostrils—"was me?"
And you break.
In hindsight, you should have realized.
"Is it so wrong for someone to trust someone else?"
First from your mother, who had slipped into the abyss.
Then from Nam Da-jung, who had risen to the angels.
Your soul had screamed and twisted inside of you, yes, yes, YES, humans lie three times a minute and change personalities at the sight of money and paint their faces with pleasant masks, YES, it's wrong to trust someone else.
Well, you were right.
She watches you break.
You never cried, not since the day you released a pale, white hand and gained a rosary bracelet.
But you cry now, because you are broken, and the only thing you can do when you are broken—is cry.
It is not quiet. It is not dignified.
It comes with great, terrible gasps that stab at your chest with every breath, and searing tears that burn at your face, and shaking limbs that feel as if they will melt into ash.
You break, and her smile falls into something eerily cold and blank. Something you had only seen in Kang Do-young.
"Back when I was a naive little girl," she whispers, "I had a thought. I saw a man who was looking for me, and he was not my father. I knew he would take me away."
A wry smile pulls at her lips.
"But what to do? If I raised a fuss, my new friends would have been worried, and I would have been taken away regardless, because I had been sold by that lovely orphanage mother. So I pretended he was my father. I ran to him as if he were my father. Then my new friends could rest in peace, playing with their Rubik's cubes and dreaming about facts and figures."
A deadly pause.
"But do you want to know where that strange man took me?"
Your breath catches in horror as you remember Do-young's words.
He wanted a girl as pretty as Da-jung, but a little bit older—
But what if someone had been willing to—
"Stop," you croak.
For the first time, a shadow drops over her face. "I went to a place where old men really like little girls," she says coldly. "Do you know what I was taught, Ha Woo-jin? Do you know what lessons I had to write in my notebook?"
stop stop stop
"Well, you would probably blush if you saw it," she says luxuriously, "but I'll sum it up for you. 'Having fun is the only thing that matters.' If there's no fun involved, it's not worth anything. And, vice versa, if there's lots of fun involved, you must grasp it by any means, whether that involves redirecting the rage of a psychopathic child, or driving a spineless mother to suicide, or even"—here she giggles—"seducing the very last boy you would have ever thought could be seduced, and accidentally, at that."
"The very last...?" you repeat blankly, because your mind is empty, cold, hollow.
She swoops forward, fingers brushing over your collarbone, cheek pressing against yours, breath washing over the tip of your ear. With the final certainty of cause-and-effect, you feel your pulse rise and your pupils dilate and your throat bob and there's nothing that you hate more.
She lingers there for a moment, gently running her fingers up the crook of your neck. It takes every remnant of self-control to make no sound, to deprive her of the satisfaction of knowing just how much she is killing you.
Finally, she provides respite. She straightens, pulling away from you.
Despite your iron control, despite the lack of noise that passes your lips, you know that she knows. She sees the sweat beading your brow and the creases in your skin and the gentle, traitorous blush scattered across your cheekbones.
"Need I say more?" she says softly.
You will yourself to be angry.
You can't even manage that.
"It's so terribly frightening, Ha Woo-jin," she continues. "You're so used to winning that when someone beats you—well, you fall flat on your face, and you can't get up until someone pulls you back to your feet." Her eyes darken. "You've never had to pull yourself from the abyss, fingernail by fingernail, learning to survive on your own—beaten and trodden and bulldozed by life."
And she leans forward, smiling.
"You remember the well, don't you? That childhood game that we never did finish?"
You do not move.
She tilts her head. "Do you know, Ha Woo-jin? If we stood on that well this very day, whose hands I would pull? Who I would drag to doom?"
"Both of us," you whisper.
She clicks her tongue. "Haven't you been listening? The obvious answer is—neither."
Your eyes lift to hers, but her irises are completely hollow, without any sign of life.
"If I had killed you two, it would have been amusing, but only for a few seconds. Then what would I have to do? Play with other children. Can you imagine how boring my life would be?" She sighs quietly, patting your knee. "You two were lots and lots of fun. Why would I get rid of that?"
In hindsight, you should have realized.
You once believed that, just as there was no such thing as a perfect crime, so was there no such thing as a perfect mask.
But you should have thought of it sooner.
Would anyone really know about a perfect crime, if it really was perfect?
And would anyone really know about a perfect mask, if it really was perfect?
"Shall I grant you one last wish?" she says quietly. "One last boon for my knight in shining armor."
And just like that
into Nam Da-jung, sweet smile and bright eyes full of wonder and eyebrows tilted into the barest hint of concern and
the scariest thing is that you, the human lie detector, cannot tell that she is wearing a mask even though you've just seen her core.
She leans forward. You feel your eyelids fluttering shut.
Soft velvet touches your lips, silky hair brushes against your cheekbones, gentle hands grip your sleeves. You smell strawberries and vanilla, country innocence, not something dark and sultry and rotten—and something flares in you, burning, and even as you hate yourself you lean in, pressing your lips more, craving to memorize the feeling of her mouth—
She has withdrawn, leaving nothing but cold air.
You don't dare to open your eyes. You can see it in your mind—the cold smirk, the cruel slant of her brow—
No longer Nam Da-jung.
You hear a single footstep, heels clacking against an unmoving floor.
You hear a gentle giggle, too gentle.
You hear a slow click of a tongue.
"You really are my dog, aren't you, Ha Woo-jin?" she whispers amusedly.
You say nothing.
You cannot speak.
A brush of fingers against your rosary beads, taunting.
"Have you realized it yet, Ha Woo-jin?" she whispers. "The real Liar Game... isn't a little broadcast show. The real Liar Game—it's life itself. And you... have just been eliminated."
Footsteps, going farther. An opening door.
"Goodbye, Ha Woo-jin," she says. "If you bark the right tune, I just might let you chew on a bone."
A creaking frame. A slamming door. A turning lock.
She leaves you shelless.
In hindsight, perfect hindsight, you should have